Georgia group home ‘game changer’ for intensive mental healthcare

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The state has opened two group homes designed specifically to help adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tucked in an Augusta neighborhood is a simple solution to a complicated problem – how to help adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities in need of intensive mental health services.

Georgia has had options for individuals with one or the other, but finding care for someone with both needs has been a struggle, leaving exhausted caregivers to abandon them in emergency rooms.

Now, the state has opened two group homes designed specifically to help this population.

“This really going to be a game changer for us,” said Kevin Tanner, the commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.

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Tanner gave a tour of the homes, pointing out the furniture built to withstand the repetitive motions – or even physical aggression – witnessed while talking with families searching for help.

“They’re solid wood and then they have the metal rails that go through there. So, they’re double-reinforced. And then in the center, there’s a pole that keeps them supported,” explained Jason Echols, the Georgia Transitional Homes program manager for Benchmark Health, the company contracted to operate the facility.

But what really makes this place different is the staff.

“I will be dealing directly with the clients coming into the home,” explained direct service professional Anthony Johnson, Sr. He said his job will include bathing, feeding, assisting with school work for those trying to earn their GED, and helping with day-to-day activities as needed.

The state has had a tough time in recent years hiring direct service providers. It can be challenging work, yet they can often get paid more with a job in fast food or retail.

“We have capacity around Georgia that we’re not able to utilize because we don’t have enough, the workers to fill those gaps,” said Tanner.

Lawmakers approved additional funding to increase wages this year by about $4.50 an hour to an average of $16 — if companies pass it along to their workers.

Johnson said he’s grateful for the extra pay, but even with the money, he says you have to love the job to do it. He became a DSP after taking care first of his father, who had diabetes and lost both of his legs and then his mother, who died of ovarian cancer.

“Just taking care of the loved ones that took care of you, just put something on my heart,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t about the money, it wasn’t about the recognition, it was about caring for someone that needed it.”

The homes will also have behavioral therapists, social workers, and 24-hour nursing care. Traditional group homes don’t have the training and staffing to offer this level of care. Most require a person to be able to eat, bathe, and function independently, hence the challenge of finding a placement.

Tanner says DBHDD will gauge success by how well they can transition into a permanent setting, whether that’s returning to their caregiver, a group home, or independent living.

There are only eight beds in Augusta. All of them are currently taken. Nearly four times as many people at any given moment are in need of placement. Tanner said that’s why this level of care will only be temporary. It’s a chance for staff to stabilize medications and teach critical life skills. But it’s the level of care that, until now, has been missing.

Tanner said he knew something needed to be done, so he asked his staff to be honest and assess the need.

“What tools do you need in your toolbox so no CEO of a hospital is frustrated because someone is stuck in their hospital emergency room? No family’s frustrated because they don’t have services?” Tanner says he asked them. “And they’ve laid a plan out that I believe gets us to that point. I really think that Georgia’s setting a plan in place that’s going to be revolutionary.”

Tanner said they started in Augusta because the state already owned the property. If the pilot is a success, Tanner believes the state will open additional locations. They’ll monitor from where people come to determine the geographical need.

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